Friday, August 26, 2016

Iroquoia Trail Test 34k Trail Run - Saturday, August 20th, 2016

Can you call it a race if you're not really racing?

I knew as soon as I signed up for the Dirty Girls 12-hour that Iroquoia Trail Test had been demoted to a "just for fun" race. That worked out well, since I'd also heard it was the most technical trail race in Ontario, and I am far too clumsy to have any time-related expectations on anything more technical than groomed rail trail.

Considering I can trip over my own feet with no outside assistance

In any case, I just wanted a nice day out in the woods. Woke up before 5, tried making some actual oatmeal (instead of the rice porridge I usually have, which is apparently now hard to find) with almond butter, sea salt & maple syrup for breakfast, then got on the road with Tanker the Wonder Sherpa just before 6am. The usual Tim Hortons stop for caffeination, then down to Crawford Lake Conservation Area just after race kit pickup began at 6:30am.

Coming today: lots of sweaty people!

It had rained overnight, leaving the cloudy morning air totally saturated with moisture. While the actual temperature was quite mild, the humidex was already through the roof.


I got my race kit, chatted with some friends, got my straw from the inimitable Ron Gehl, and did all the pre-race things like lubing up the chafe-y bits and swinging my limbs around with reckless abandon while listening to some awesome pre-race tunes (Operation Ivy and Forgotten Rebels FTW!). I asked volunteers if I'd be able to use trekking poles, since I have a vested interest in staying upright and the course had been described as "nice and greasy" - noone knew for sure until I finally found the race director, who told me the trail would be too narrow and just to be careful. He clearly doesn't know me at all.

Who would want to?

We got Tanker the Wonder Sherpa settled in near the start/finish line with my cooler bag full of crap, got a kiss from him, then lined up toward the back of the 34k pack just before the horn sounded to send us on our way.

I'm way at the back, behind all the skinny, competent-looking people.

The course begins on the wide, grassy doubletrack of the snowshoe trail with a couple of little hummocks in it, then veers off to the right onto some still wide and grassy singletrack before plunging you into the woods. The rocks start cropping up almost immediately, but are sporadic enough that you can easily pick your way through and keep running, even in the conga line that is a trail race start.

No problemo.

The forest was incredible in the early morning. The air was so thick with moisture I was soaked and my braids were dripping from their tips within the first 10 minutes - I've never been that wet unless it was actively raining. The air temperature in the shade of the trees remained mild so far, but the sun slanted down through the canopy in stunningly beautiful beams through the misty air.

Stolen from Patty since I didn't have my camera.

Trucking right along, you come to a nicely groomed and mildly undulating rail trail-like section near Crawford Lake itself (a meromitic lake - deeper than it is wide - with little to no mixing between the distinct layers of water that support different ecosystems depending on their temperature, and very little oxygen at its lower levels).

Now this I can run.

Almost as beautiful as the forest itself were the wood carvings down by the lake, about half of which we passed on the course (the rest being on the other side of the Crawford Lake Trail, from which we diverted to continue along a section of Bruce Trail side trail). They depicted various flora and fauna indigenous to the area.

Turtles and toadstools

Big, beautiful snake and a bench to take a rest

Turning away from the lake, it was through a bit of meadow with hip-high grass, then back into the rooty, rocky trail again. I'd managed to run most of the first 3 kilometers or so (which included an aid station - nice to see plenty of water on course on a hot day!), trotting along and chatting with Jason, whom I'd met at Conquer the Canuck back in June. As we began to skirt around the edge of the Niagara Escarpment on the edge of the Nassagaweya Canyon, though, I was forced to walk more and more as the wet, slippery, mossy rocks began to dominate the trail's surface. There's one point where a slab of rock runs right across the narrow, side-sloped trail that drops away precipitously to the right hand side. Said rock was as slippery as the rest of them in the soggy morning air, and too wide to step over or around. There was a tiny, pitted toe-hold chipped out of it in almost the dead centre, and you're damn right I used that to my advantage on every single loop.

Carefully now..

Making it past the most perilous portion of the course by walking for minutes on end, I came to the second aid station around 4.6km in and refilled my hand bottle. I'd already started with some nutrition and electrolytes - an S!cap at 30mins with a swig off a flask of diluted EFS Liquid Shot (result of me rinsing out the last of a refill jug). While it felt early to be eating and taking in salt, I was concerned that my breakfast had been a bit lighter than usual - I didn't want to overdo it with the oats until I knew how they sat - and knowing that my EFS was diluted about 3:1 with water I felt like some calories might help. I'd had nothing but water since my coffee (with cashew milk and some Rolo syrup) since 6:30am, and was actually a bit hungry, so figured I'd keep up with dilute gel every 30mins until it was gone.

If there's a bird in your hand in the bush, is it worth 3?

After another bit of grassy doubletrack where the sun was already starting to beat us down, there's a big, sketchy downhill section that took us through some muddy puddles with flat, slippery rocks in them, and it was here that I encountered some people going the other way. They were wearing bibs with 200-series numbers on them, though, so it seemed they were 18k runners (34k runners' bibs were numbered in the 300s, whereas the 7k runners had numbers 0-199). I assumed the 7k loop went the other way, then they continued on to the 11k loop. I'd looked over the map of the 34k course a couple of times (not nearly enough to remember it if push came to shove), but hadn't looked at any other distances.

There's a huge PDF of this map available here.

After the loose, gravel & stone-strewn, muddy descent, the trail opened up a bit into a gentle decline on very mildly rooty dirt singletrack. This was probably the most runnable section of the entire course, and I put in some time here before coming to the final aid station around 7km in. I still had a fair bit of water, so didn't bother filling here, despite being warned by a volunteer that we were approaching the biggest climb on the course. Around a corner, then along a bit more runnable trail, and suddenly the start of the hill hove into view.

Random trail section - nothing to do with the hill.

You can't see the whole thing from any point on it, as it winds its way through the woods for over a kilometer and a quarter. There are a couple of very short flatter sections on the way up, but they really only serve to give you false hope that you've finally reached the top. The trail varies from not-too-rooty dirt singletrack to a very deeply washed-out section that had large chunks of tree laying in it from the overnight rain - that would have been awfully dangerous if the predicted thunderstorms had happened during the race, as all that forest debris would be heading straight for you!

Eventually reaching the top, there is some more runnable trail (though there are quite a few roots, so it's a bit of an agility course), and then another descent down to a most welcome sight: wooden boardwalks through a marshy area around Limestone Creek. The springiness of the boards is lovely at any time, but by the third loop it was positively heavenly! It was also a good spot to take in nutrition as you didn't have to watch your step for the most part, though the boardwalk was in sections at different levels so you'd have to mind the ends, either stepping down or up to the height of the next piece.

Or flying, if you're so biologically gifted.

Another steep half-kilometer uphill slog back up the same sketchy hill and into the mud puddles you descended through earlier, then past the place you turned onto the descent and up something that can only be described as a goat path lined with little black-eyed susans (during which climb I ran out of water taking another S!cap - d'oh!). You finally emerge back on the grassy doubletrack that leads you to the start/finish. This part is a bit infuriating, though, as you expect it will be the same route as you took on the way out. For the very last part this is true, and you'll see two-way traffic. However, the way to the finish includes no less than 4 extra turns! At each one, you believe the finish line is just around the corner...only to discover more trail. Such a tease!


I finally made it through the first lap in 1:32:23 and got my bottle filled at the aid station beside where Tanker had parked himself and scarfed back a small slice of heavenly watermelon. I hung out for a minute while Jason got whatever he needed done, stuffed another gel flask with some watered-down sea salt chocolate Gu Roctane gel (having learned at Dirty Girls that it's too thick to suck from a flask straight) in my pocket, grabbed a half a dozen deliciously salty giant corn nuts to munch on, and then we were finally on our way down the hill and back onto the snowshoe trail. I completely failed to pick up the camera, which had been my intention - just plum forgot.

The photos you see are from much later in the afternoon.

I played airborne caterpillar with Jason and another fellow (who was a self-proclaimed senior citizen, which tells you something about my pace) through the second lap, sometimes running with one or both of them for quite awhile but still spending some time on my own. I also managed to tweak my left ankle a couple of times, at least once badly enough that I had to do my usual "am I ok?" self-check, then just keep running anyway. It's always worked in the past! My hamstrings were getting grouchy with all of the steep climbs I was hiking, but overall I felt ok and the trail remained engagingly beautiful, though the lady I spotted very carefully picking her way through one of the most technical sections in a pair of road running shoes may have had a different term for it - she looked petrified. I will definitely say it was impossible to get bored out there!

Jaw-dropping scenery

It was getting hotter out, so I soaked the cooling tubular thing I had on my wrist (which I was trying out today to see if it would help in the high heat and humidity) with a cup of water from the first aid station. I'll do a review of this bit of kit later on once I've had a chance to use it some more, but it sucked the water right up and felt rather heavy on my wrist. It did, however, get quite chilly as well - I'd give it a quick squeeze with my other palm once in awhile to get a bit of cooling, though its position on my wrist with my hand bottle made it impossible to wipe my face with it due to the brim of my hat getting in the way. I noticed my hands swelling so popped another S!cap at 2h20m, and kept up with the dilute EFS Liquid Shot about every 40mins until it was gone at 2h30m. No GI issues, though I did have a bit of gas - sorry to all those I cropdusted on the trail! I promise I've tracked down some more rice porridge and will switch back to that from the oatmeal.

Moving right along. I slammed an Endurance Tap gel and another S!cap at the 3-hour mark with the last sip of water in my bottle. I still had a mile of sun-drenched doubletrack to go to the start/finish, despite having the wonderful volunteers at the last aid station add an extra cupful for me. I'd have to be mindful on the last loop, especially since I was slowing down while the temperature was still going up.

Kill me.

Maybe the heat affected my brain, because I was certainly pretty stupid out there. On my second descent of the big, sketchy hill I saw people with 34k bibs coming up the other way. Um, I know I came this way before and this is the turn the volunteer told me to take - how could I have gone off course? Actually, this is where I figured out that the main downhill and the first part of the final uphill are on the same piece of trail - the mud puddles with their flat rocks were a dead giveaway when I got there. So, that's a course knowledge fail and initial landmark recognition fail for me, since I didn't put it together when I was climbing out on the first loop. Such a lemming!

I'll pass it off as being too busy trying to stay upright

At some point during this loop it also became clear I needed to pee, but by this time there were quite a number of non-racers out on the trail, just doing day hikes through the gorgeous woods (many of whom were using trekking poles - guess noone told them the trail is too narrow for them). Obviously I'd have to wait until I got back to the start/finish and use the portajohns that were set up nearby if I wanted relief.

I crossed the mats again at 3 hours 12mins and 37 seconds, having taken 1:40:14 for my second lap - slower than the first by 07:51, but it did include all the dithering at the start/finish on the first loop and two extra aid station pauses (to soak my cooling tube and get an extra cup of water), so perhaps not quite such catastrophic pace decay as it looks.

Full workout details here.

Of course, I promptly forgot all about needing to use the facilities, instead just heading over to get my bottle filled. There was quite a lineup at the start/finish aid station, so I gave u and grabbed my other hand bottle (providently filled and already with a strap on it) instead. I also ditched the empty EFS flask and took a snack baggie with a fudge creme cookie and a little corn flapjack (made of pan-fried masa harina) I'd made the night before and decided to try as fuel. I also had to take my bib off my skirt - the top two pins had pulled right through so it was barely hanging on, having deteriorated badly in the wet morning. I stuck the bib in my pocket and, with another kiss from Tanker, I was on my way again for the final lap.

Bib issues.

Jason caught up to me on the Snowshoe Trail and asked how I was doing - I left it at "well, I don't think I'll go out for a fourth lap". I was starting to get a bit tired and knew I'd have to pay very careful attention to what I was doing to avoid a slip-up that could result in really serious injury, particularly since the noonday sun was causing some contrast issues in the dappled light of the woods. Fortunately, I managed not to do any more damage to myself, despite probably running a little more (and in some more challenging sections) than in either of the prior two loops. I only caught one toe on a root or rock once, and just gently - there was no interpretive dance required to keep myself from going sprawling, though I saw plenty of that happen around me.

Gee, I can't imagine why..

I spent a lot more time on my own during the last loop, too, only occasionally passing or being passed by someone. It turned out it was more of the former than the latter, too - while I might have been getting tired, I apparently didn't fade in the building heat and blowlamp as much as some others, and put some time in on at least 5 or 6 people. Part of that may have been due to my cooling tube - convinced that it was doing some good, I moved it from my wrist to around my neck during the 3rd lap, and while it would get warm on the back of my neck where there was no air circulation to it I was delighted to discover I could give my face and temples a refreshing wipe periodically with an exposed (and nicely chilled) section.

Though a bench still sounded tempting..

It also may have had to do with increasing my caloric intake during the last loop. I ate my little corn flapjack (~55cals) at 3h40m as I walked through the longest un-runnable (by me, anyway) section, which had improved somewhat as the sun dried out some of the more exposed slippery rocks. I had a shot of my sea salt chocolate Gu Roctane gel at the 4-hour mark, which had the added benefit of some caffeine to sharpen me up a bit, and then ate my delicious fudge creme cookie at 4h20m just because I didn't want to have carried it all that way for no reason. I increased hydration as well, filling my bottle at every aid station to ensure I wouldn't run out. Two more S!caps at 3h45m and 4h30m (the latter mostly to help with recovery) made for 6 total throughout the race, but my swollen hands attested to the fact I probably could have done with more. I never did get that pee, either.

I did, however, eventually make it up that last goat path climb, even managing to pick myself a little black-eyed susan to stick behind my ear. It was abundantly clear I couldn't be fast - might as well look fabulous finishing.

Well, fabulous is a relative term.

Finally, with a few minutes left to go before my "gee I hope I can make it under 5 hours" cutoff, I made it through the maze of turns on the Snowshoe Trail and up the hill to the finish line.

Holding my poor, beat-up race bib as I crossed.

 Official time for 34k: 4:52:32

I'd actually managed my 3rd loop in 1:39:54 - twenty seconds faster than my second, despite additional time at aid stations and accumulated fatigue.

Actually 6/7 F<40 - 15/18 F & 68/85 O/A among finishers

The race directors really thought of everything for this one, having freezies waiting for finishers right at the line (as well as my stylish hand-painted finisher's rock)!


After cheering Jason in across the line, I got some post-race food into me and then Tanker the Wonder Sherpa and I went out for nearly an hour-long hike on the trails (which is where most of the photos in this came from) so he could see a bit of the beauty I'd experienced, though the really challenging parts of the course were too far away for my tired legs to hike, so don't think the pics here are demonstrative of the full nature of the course.

Oh, and just in case you've ever questioned his title of Wonder Sherpa, I submit this photo of Tanker as evidence:

Removing my shoe for me, despite it being the smelliest thing in the world.
Seriously. I ran in those things for 12 hours straight last month!

Love this guy!

Then it was time to hop in the car and go home to cut the heat of the day with a nice, cool beverage.

Huge thanks to all of the volunteers and staff who put on an excellent race. It wasn't one I am well suited for, but I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge and the hard work you put in to make a great race experience! The course marking was excellent (even I couldn't get lost), the aid stations were superb, and the amenities were second to none. I wouldn't hesitate to come back to try to pass the test again!


  1. I can only hope that Hali is would be nice not to race in humidity soup!

    1. Best of luck at Haliburton! I'll be doing a weird little tri that weekend, so I'll keep my fingers crossed for more amenable weather for you!


Go on, have at me!